Power to the People

The progressive reforms coming out of Albany recently have been a long
Graphic: Ajay Carroll

time coming. Leading up to the November election, grassroots groups across the state worked tirelessly to Get Out the Vote. However, Tanika Jones of Citizen Action of Syracuse will tell you that "voting is just the first step. People need to take action if they want to see real change. Elected officials need to remember that they work for us." Democrats took the majority of the state senate in January, and grassroots groups fought hard to make sure they passed reforms to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, and to make sense economically.

When Governor Patterson proposed cutting health care and education spending by $6.5 billion, the Fair Share Coalition responded by mobilizing an army of canvassers and volunteers. Beginning in late November 2008, people around the state lobbied their Senators, wrote letters, orchestrated demonstrations and ultimately, succeeded in convincing the State Senate that New York needs fair share tax reform. The progressive income tax (PIT) will rise for those earning more than $300,000, with a further increase for those earning more than $500,000. Rolling back the tax cuts of the past 30 years, the PIT is expected to raise roughly $4 billion annually.

In 1973, New York passed what were then considered the nation's harshest drug laws: the Rockefeller Laws. Thirty-five years of mandatory prison sentencing for non-violent drug related crimes have had a disproportionately negative effect on communities of color. The practice of locking up addicts has cost the state $500 million annually. For decades, former inmates, families, and diverse advocacy groups have fought to "Drop the Rock." A staunch advocate of drug policy reform, Governor Patterson was arrested at a 2002 demonstration in front of then-Governor Pataki's office. This year, legislators and community activists are celebrating a reform to the Rockefeller Laws that acknowledges that drug use is a public health problem and should be treated as such. Judges will have the discretion to sentence first-time non-violent offenders to treatment instead of prison.

The new Bottle Bill expands New York's bottle return law to include water bottles, a quarter of all beverages sold in New York, and is forecasted to generate around $115 million annually. It took groups like NYPIRG nine years of organizing to pass this common-sense legislation that will reduce litter and increase state revenues.

Unfortunately, most progressive causes don't have the funding to hire talented organizers. For significant changes to occur, it remains up to those that recognize where the government has gone wrong to speak out. The recent reforms are proof of a political shift occurring in New York State, not just in the Senate but in the street. We the people are learning how to harness our collective power.

- Ursula Rozum